Not long ago I had an opportunity to examine William Blake’s engravings from an original edition of the Book of Job published in 1826, as well as a set of Blake’s watercolors on the same subject done two decades earlier. Blake’s ambivalence toward the God of the Old Testament is nowhere better illustrated than in his rendering of Jehovah in the engraving entitled “Job’s Evil Dreams.” A cloven-hoofed Jehovah, a serpent coiled around his legs and torso, hovers over the sleeping figure of Job as demons claw at him from below. Jehovah’s hair is spiked like some punk rocker, and he points toward the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Nowhere in the Book of Job is God remotely described in this manner. However, one might argue that the artistic license Blake takes in portraying God as the devil is more than justified by the mayhem God unleashes on the undeserving Job.
The biblical commandment against making graven images has had the perverse effect of giving free rein to artists who choose to ignore it. There is no canonical image of the Almighty to fetter their imaginations. As a general rule, however, the images of God favored in a particular culture bear more than a casual resemblance to the culture that produced it. The Greek poet Xenophanes quipped more than 2500 years ago, “Men make gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair.” Baron de Montesquieu expressed a similar idea in his Persian Letters when he wrote, “It has been well said that if triangles had a god, they would give him three sides.”
Our tendency to remake God in our own image extends well beyond the matter of whether he has spiked hair or a snub nose. As the 19th-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach pointed out, we tend to project human attributes onto the cosmos and call it God. Given that we are supposedly made in God’s image, a bit of reverse engineering might seem justified. But which human attributes are we talking about? Is it the loving, compassionate God of the New Testament or the fire-breathing tyrant who thunders from the mountaintops in the Old Testament?
If God were simply mankind writ large, we wouldn’t have a problem, since human nature is nothing if not changeable. However, due no doubt to our own erratic behavior, we generally look for consistency in our deities. The Greeks set the tone, with their notions about the Absolute. For Aristotle, God is the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover, the embodiment of perfection. If God is already perfect, then presumably he cannot change without calling into question his prior perfection. Similar notions are found in the Scriptures, where God is described as having “no variation or shadow due to change.” The only problem with that idea is that it is contradicted by God’s actions in the Scriptures themselves.
The Lord is presented in the Book of Deuteronomy as “the Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice.” Yet even the most abject apologist for the Almighty would have a tough time squaring this description with his actual behavior. What kind of God would insist that Abraham make a burnt offering of his son, even if he later rescinded his demand? Or, for that matter, what kind of God would sacrifice his own son, described as being without sin, in order to atone for the sins of the world? But for sheer sadistic excess, we need look no further than the Book of Job, the story of a “blameless and upright” man whose life God destroys merely to prove a point. When Job seeks an explanation from the Almighty, the Voice that grudgingly responds from the whirlwind can offer nothing more than bluster. This led the depth psychologist C.G. Jung to conclude that Job, not God, occupied the moral high ground in this encounter; indeed, that God was almost wholly lacking in self-awareness and was therefore incapable of acting morally.
It is not immediately clear how an omniscient God, as we generally prefer to think of him, could be wholly lacking in self-awareness. Unless, of course, it was not God who lacked self-awareness, but the culture that produced him. If Feuerbach is to be believed, the attributes we ascribe to God are merely an aggrandized version of ourselves. Small wonder then that the tribal God of the ancient Israelites might carry on like a Middle Eastern potentate. Nearly four thousand years of cultural development separate us from the God who demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son, so it is not surprising that we now find such importuning to be a bit much.
Jung saw the Book of Job as a turning point in our understanding of God – or if you prefer, in God’s understanding of himself. All his bluster notwithstanding, the Lord did try to make amends to Job at the story’s end. And thereafter he seemed more inclined to comport himself in a manner that is compatible with modern sensibilities. Aristotle might not be prepared to concede the point, since it goes against his notion that God represents timeless perfection. Another way to look at it, however, is that even God as we know him had to grow up sometime.
C.G. Jung, Answer to Job